2023 Stanley Cup Final Preview: Florida, Vegas seek first championship

Ken Reid takes a look at starting goaltenders Sergei Bobrovsky and Adin Hill unlikely journeys throughout the playoffs helping lead their team to a berth in the Stanley Cup Final.

It’s the southern-most Stanley Cup Final we’ve ever had, but if that makes you sleep on the best-of-seven ahead between Vegas and Florida, your loss.

Despite Vegas being the Pacific Division’s regular season champion and Florida barely qualifying for the playoffs at all as the East’s second wild card, this series is shaping up to be tightly fought. The Golden Knights have been getting contributions from all over the lineup and Adin Hill has made us forget all about the fact he’s third on the goalie depth chart when everyone is healthy. The Panthers, meantime, have already frustrated and blown away three teams that were considered much better Stanley Cup contenders.

Neither of these teams have trailed in a playoff series since Round 1 — Vegas after it dropped its first game, and Florida never trailing since they recovered from a 3-1 series deficit to Boston.

There will be a first-time Stanley Cup champion this season. Who do you got: Florida or Vegas?

Here’s our series preview.

The story of Vegas’ season: Big bounce back from last year’s concerning finish

Ever since the expansion team landed in Vegas, the Golden Knights have eschewed a more traditional “organization building” process from the ground up with prospects and through the draft, and been all-in on big, splashy moves with an eye on hitting owner Bill Foley’s stated goal of winning a Stanley Cup by the time the team was six years old.

This means that the “future” has already been mortgaged for the present. Sure, Vegas has picked in the first round six times in six drafts (three of which came in 2017), but only one of them remains a part of the organization (Brendan Brisson). The payoff is that Vegas has added several difference-makers along the way. Alex Pietrangelo arrived via free agency; Jack Eichel, Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty (later traded away himself) all were acquired in blockbuster trades.

Initially, this seemed like a great play to make. Vegas, after all, reached the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season and got back to the third round in both 2020 and 2021. Then last year happened, and much about the way the organization did business started coming into question.

Injuries were a massive factor behind why Vegas was able to fit Eichel’s cap hit at all mid-season. They took a chance on the player after he had a kind of neck surgery that hadn’t been performed on any other NHL player, and was part of the reason Buffalo moved him. Then, when they missed the playoffs, Eichel’s acquisition was debated all over again since they paid a haul and threatened their cap balance for a player who’d never won a thing in the NHL.

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The ruthless way in which the front office has pursued upgrades leaves little room for a sense of loyalty and there was a sense that the “magic” of their initial Cinderella run was wearing off. Pacioretty was dumped off last summer due to his salary; they tried dealing Evgenii Dadonov to Anaheim at last year’s deadline, but that was later voided by the league because of the player’s trade protection in his contract; and, in all, only five players remain from the 2017-18 pro roster.

This season brought a fresh start and better health, but still questions, especially in net since Robin Lehner was going to miss the entire season after hip surgery. Logan Thompson mostly took the job and ran with it until the injury bug got him and the whole position was again up in the air. By the end of the regular season, four different goalies played at least 10 games for Vegas.

The team-building philosophy held up this time, though, and the Golden Knights rebounded all the way to a Pacific Division title and the only time they’ve trailed a playoff series to this point was when they lost Game 1 to Winnipeg.

So, a year after cracks were maybe starting to show, the Golden Knights got fully back on track and now are four wins away from achieving Foley’s ambitious goal set back in 2017.

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The story of Florida’s season: A razor-thin difference between success and utter embarrassment

It all really comes down to the last two weeks or so of the regular season. Florida had started the year slowly and was playing better hockey in the second half, but there were factors running against them that made the playoffs seem maybe a little out of reach.

With eight games left in the season, the Panthers trailed eighth-place Pittsburgh by three points and did not have hold of the tie-breaker. At the same time, Sam Bennett was out of the lineup and, more crucially, starter Sergei Bobrovsky was out with a non-COVID illness. Second-stringer Spencer Knight was in the NHL-NHLPA Player Assistance Program, and so Alex Lyon started a big game in Toronto — he made 38 saves and earned a 3-2 OT win.

The Panthers needed an unforeseeable Andrew Hamburglar-lite run down the stretch and…kinda got it. Lyon started each of Florida’s remaining games, went 6-1-1 and turned aside 94.3 per cent of all the shots he faced. It was the best stretch of his career and, ultimately, is what got Florida in by a single point…clinched by a Penguins loss to Chicago of all teams.

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It was a shocking end to the regular season just to claim the East’s last available spot, but Florida has just kept surprising us for the past six weeks. They recovered from a 3-1 first-round series deficit to Boston, winning three in a row. They won three in a row out of the gate against the Maple Leafs and sent them packing in five games, and then swept aside the Hurricanes in four one-goal games.

Last year everyone had eyes on Florida after they won the Presidents’ Trophy, but this year they were mostly an afterthought just lucky to get in. And now here they are, back in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1996 — the last time the Panthers had a Cinderella run that shocked the hockey world.

This season is now one of the two most successful in franchise history, but had those last two weeks of the regular season gone any less than essentially perfect, the Panthers would have missed the playoffs and sent a lottery draft pick to Montreal for last season’s rental addition of Ben Chiarot.

That, folks, is the small difference between success and failure in pro sports.

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Regular season 5-on-5 numbers via Natural Stat Trick

How the Golden Knights become Stanley Cup champions:

Essentially, they’ll be crowned if they can defeat a team of destiny. So how do you defeat a team the Hockey Gods seem to be pulling for?

First, your big boys have to keep healthy and produce how they have through the first three rounds. Eichel, in his first post-season, has broken out as a two-way player all playoffs long and leads the team in scoring. Original Knight Jonathan Marchessault has nine goals and deadline pickup Ivan Barbashev has been a beast.

But where Vegas has gained a real edge on the competition is on the depth lines, led by third-line centre William Karlsson who is the team’s goal-scoring leader with 10. Karlsson, an original Golden Knight, shares a line with another Day 1 Vegas forward Reilly Smith, and that used to be a top-six combination for the expansion team.

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And how about the fourth line of William Carrier, Keegan Kolesar and Nicolas Roy, which contributed two goals in the series-clinching win against Dallas? When that trio has been together they have outshot the competition 20-16, out-chanced them 14-12, and outscored them 3-1 at 5-on-5. It’s a fourth line with a real identity and purpose.

Special teams have been a bit of a story for the Golden Knights during these playoffs and, like last round, it will be key to stay disciplined against a Panthers power play that was perfect in the last three games of the Eastern Conference Final. Vegas arrived in the West Final with the worst penalty kill still standing and both of their special teams (PP and PK) were less successful in Round 3 than their opponent’s.

So, really, how much longer can Vegas’ bottom six produce as it has, and how much longer can they get by with a penalty kill that has been relatively underwhelming?

The battle at the top of the lineup will obviously be important through this series, but Vegas has found an edge on the margins that the Panthers will be looking to snuff out.

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How the Panthers become Stanley Cup champions:

It begins with Goalie Bob, who enters the series with one hand on the Conn Smythe Trophy. By MoneyPuck’s measure, Bobrovsky has saved nearly 20 goals more than expected in these playoffs, far above any other starter. No team that advanced past Round 1 allowed more shots against per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play than the Panthers and their competition has gotten a number of high-quality looks at the net. However, Bobrovsky has been a difference maker in every game except his first start of the playoffs — a 6-2 Game 4 loss to Boston that put the Panthers behind 3-1 in their opening round series.

Bobrovsky has been the story of the post-season for the Panthers, more than earning his $10 million AAV that was long ago declared a vast overpay. That has to continue and the hope would be that the layoff between series will give him the rest — and not too much of it — that he needs. In recent years Bobrovsky has not been a netminder who handles heavy workloads well.

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There is some debate for why Tkachuk should be a contender for Florida’s playoff MVP as well. Last summer’s big trade addition is making Panthers GM Bill Zito look good because while Florida barely got into the playoffs at all, Tkachuk’s presence this post-season is exactly why he was acquired in the first place. Florida got out of the first round for the first time in 26 years last season, but were then swiftly swept by the Lightning. Tkachuk’s arrival — and Paul Maurice’s coaching — has completely changed the way the Panthers approach the game.

In the Eastern Conference Final, Tkachuk scored three game-winning goals, including the series clincher with seconds left on the clock in Game 4. In the second round he didn’t score at all, but registered five assists and was a nuisance/distraction for the Leafs all series long. Against Boston, he helped will the Panthers back, scoring three goals and six points in the last three games of the comeback. In Calgary, Tkachuk didn’t have time to deliver the defined Big Performance of the playoffs, but is doing so now and will surely embrace the biggest stage in the final.

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Florida’s chances to upset another team hinges on those two continuing their charge through the playoffs, but the Panthers must also maintain the quick and heavy forecheck they have absolutely worn teams down with. Bennett and Aleksander Barkov have been worthy headliners in that regard, but Sam Reinhart, Eetu Luostarinen and Anton Lundell are doing plenty of heavy lifting without the fanfare. And, in fact, if you’re looking for a potential breakout player in this series it’s the 21-year-old Lundell, who has one of the highest individual expected goal rates on the team, but just one actual playoff goal to show for it so far.

Again, will the layoff between Rounds 3 and 4 work in Florida’s favour for rest, or will it chill their urgency and how — at the very least — they may start another series?

The Panthers, known for an almost structure-less offensive chaos approach a year ago, have come to be defined much more by grit, shutting down the middle and patiently waiting for chances created off turnovers from their relentless checking. That takes continued buy-in, determination and focus to work.

No letting up now.

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